In an unprecedented move that took place before and after midnight on 23-24 October, the Narendra Modi government suspended – in bureaucratic parlance, “sent on leave” – Alok Verma, Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation, supposedly India’s premier police investigating agency. A day earlier, the second-in-command in the agency, Special Director Rakesh Asthana, met a similar fate by being stripped of all his powers and responsibilities, and getting placed on “compulsory wait.” The offices of the two police officers in the headquarters of the CBI in New Delhi have reportedly been “searched” and “sealed.” The third in seniority in the organisation, M Nageshwar Rao is currently holding charge of the organisation.
Never before in the history of the CBI has there been such an unseemly tussle at the top between the organisation’s two senior-most officers. In the past, there have been many instances of infighting and factionalism in the CBI – as is inevitable in any such organisation – but never has the rivalry played out in the public domain and caused so much embarrassment to the ruling regime. Various governments have used the CBI to target political rivals and this government is no different, even as it has been more brazen than most of its predecessors. But never in the past has political targetting by the rulers careened so completely out of control. In the process, the image of the Prime Minister has been badly mauled, especially since one particular officer (Asthana) is perceived to be very close to him and had been hand-picked for the job in the teeth of opposition from some of his colleagues, notably his immediate boss (Verma).
Even as the Modi government desperately attempts to control the damage that has already been caused, the brouhaha in the CBI is a consequence of, and symptomatic of, four factors which relate to the way the Prime Minister has been acting (a) in a highly-centralised manner; (b) depending more on serving or former police officers instead of other career civil servants – example, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval; (c) relying excessively on a few “loyal” and “trusted” officers who are willing to work at his beck and call; and (d) effectively bypassing political functionaries within the ruling party and its allies in running the administration.
These are the four most important structural factors that have contributed to the present denouement wherein the two top officers of the CBI have accused each other of accepting bribes to fix investigations that are considered important and sensitive. This is hardly the first time that the CBI has acted against its own officers. Relatively senior officers of the CBI have had to spend time behind bars. What is new and different this time is that the tussle at the top has gone way beyond bickering, back-biting and backroom intrigues. Those leading the CBI are at each other’s throats in full view of everybody and his sister.
Allegations of forgery, fraud and acceptance of bribes to influence criminal cases have been made at a time when the CBI itself has, for the first time in the history of the country, been asked to probe charges of corruption against two of its own former directors, A. P. Singh and Ranjit Sinha. Further ignominy has now been heaped on an agency which, despite its many limitations, is still perceived by ordinary citizens as the police organisation of “last resort” – as an agency that can be expected to take to task the high and the mighty, whether they be politicians, bureaucrats, corporate captains or police personnel themselves.
The Supreme Court had observed in 2013 that the CBI had behaved like a “caged parrot” while investigating the “Coalgate” cases pertaining to irregularities in the allotment of coal mining blocks. This took place towards the fag end of the second Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government which resulted in the forced resignation of the then Union Law Minister Ashwani Kumar and an important law officer of the Indian government. It is far from clear whether any heads would roll this time around. Probably not. The Modi government hates acknowledging its mistakes. It would perhaps bide its time and hope the crisis blows over. However, what has become amply evident in the process is that the personal loyalty of officers, especially powerful police officers, matters more than anything else to the most important politicians ruling the country at present.
In the coming days, there is certain to be a heated debate on a host of issues relating to (1) whether the action against CBI Director Verma is legal or not since he is supposed to have a fixed term of two years; (2) the role that has been played in the entire episode by the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) which is the body which is meant to directly supervise the working of the CBI after the 2001 decision of the Supreme Court in the Vineet Narain versus Union of India case, popularly known as the Jain hawala scandal; (3) the veracity or otherwise of the allegations of bribery and forgery that have levelled against both Verma and Asthana and those close to them; (4) whether the two should at all be compared and contrasted in terms of their personal integrity; and (5) finally, whether or not the government could have, or should have, acted in a different manner.
It can be argued that the “original sin” was committed in the very manner in which Asthana was first appointed “interim” Director and then, Special Director, against the wishes of Verma. But where does one go from here?
Let us consider four scenarios. The first is that both Verma and Asthana are “clean” and as incorruptible as they come and that their differences are a consequence of professional rivalry, ego clashes, one-upmanship and an internal turf war within the CBI – this is arguably the most charitable explanation as far as the Modi government is concerned. However, even under this scenario, it is clear that the two top officers of the CBI who are both supposed to be honest still have no compunctions in levelling serious allegations of corruption against each other.
The second and third scenarios are that Verma is corrupt and Asthana is not or vice versa. In either of these two scenarios, they are both apparently capable of accusing the other of grave misdemeanours that are quite unbecoming of two of the senior-most police officers in India who are themselves mandated to charge and prosecute the corrupt and uphold the law of the land no matter if the charges involve the most important people in the country. The fourth and last scenario is that both the concerned officers are not above board, in which case, we would be forced to conclude that India’s premier investigative agency is headed by a bunch of crooks.
What a terrible situation we find ourselves in, in having to choose among these four scenarios outlined?
The CBI came into existence nearly 55 years ago under the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act of 1946. From the colonial era, it was felt that there was a need for a special police establishment under the direct control and supervision of the Union government that could curb big-ticket corruption and act against the rich and the powerful. Despite its mixed track-record in prosecuting influential individuals and despite the fact that the CBI has been used blatantly against political opponents of successive ruling regimes, the country’s ordinary citizens have continued to repose considerable faith in the abilities of the CBI to book corrupt persons and criminals, no matter how important they are. This abiding faith is now in danger of being irreparably damaged.